The K-pop star has conquered Asia, created fans out of the media and garnered worldwide buzz. Now his impending tour will determine if the American music industry sees Rain in its forecast.
story by CORINA KNOLL
photos courtesy of StarM and JYP Management
It’s mid-afternoon in the A-T-L and the temperature is nearing 80 degrees, which is the norm for the month of May in this city.
Welcome to Hotlanta, home to the largest consortium of black colleges, a few dozen Waffle Houses and a style that is particular to XXL T-shirts and Baby Phat. Of course, it’s also a place ripe with history, serving as the birthland of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Today, the metropolis of urban sprawl also boasts a thriving music industry. Hip-hop stars like OutKast and Ludacris got their start here, putting Southern rap on the map, and the headquarters of LaFace Records, the label that produces Usher, Ciara and Pink, calls the Peach State home.
What Atlanta is not, is a city where you’d imagine the American success of a Korean pop star would begin. And yet it is here where Rain will announce his 2007 North American tour, projected as the vehicle that will put him in an entirely different class of pop stars. Because while he has sold out concerts across Asia and filled up Madison Square Garden and Caesar’s Palace, he’s now attempting a full-blown, unprecedented U.S. crossover.
The tour doesn’t kick-off until June 15, but he is scheduled to arrive later today for a press conference. Atlanta, a mainstay of the Dirty South, feels like a hard sell, but perhaps it is the proper litmus test to determine if Rain can shine in America.
* * *
The gold-toned Savannah Hall on the second floor of the lavish Four Seasons has been appropriately decorated with Rain’s posters, and by 6 p.m., start time for the publicized press conference, more than 25 journalists — primarily Asian media — have filled the room. But he’s a no show.
After 20 minutes, the group grows restless, trading questions and flipping through notepads. The only Rain on the horizon is his likeness imprinted on the side of a model airplane (a replica of the private jet the pop star was given by Korean Air to tool around in) on a table next to a lonely mic. Ten more minutes go by until the publicists begin handing out writing tablets with photos of the performer and messages written in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and English. Having flown in from Spain and fought through rush hour traffic, Rain, we are assured, is in the building.
Shortly afterward, a blond public relations rep walks to the front of the room and begins awkwardly reading aloud a bio that has clearly been written for a different audience. No one here needs to know that Rain is the leading star of the Korean wave known as hallyu or that he’s considered the Asian equivalent of Justin Timberlake. (It is overheard afterward that the PR firm was hired to deal with mainstream news outlets, but the handlers were dismayed by the lack of such representation in the crowd.)
At the end of the intro, a back door swings open on cue. Flanked by bodyguards, it is Rain in the flesh. He offers a quick bow with a soft “Anyeonghaseyo” then slides into the seat next to the translator.
“Hi, this is Rain,” he says, switching to English. “Thank you for coming.”
The near-shy greeting matches his boyish, sweet face crowned with a dollop of carefully mussed auburn hair. Garbed in a light-blue cotton blazer, dark jeans and patterned shirt with a skinny black tie, he looks as if he put on his Sunday best, but would rather be sporting cargo pants and sneakers.
The waiting press is silent for an entire 60 seconds until photographers begin clicking and flashing, even daring to encroach upon his personal space, shoving the lenses just inches from the 24-year-old’s face.
A Q-and-A session ensues where the questions range from incredibly specific (“Do you have any comments towards the Chinese fans?”) to the ridiculously esoteric (“Would AIDS be considered the climax of your concert?”). To each one, Rain responds in smooth cadences then waits as the interpreter translates his answers into English.
“I have the highest respect for them, because when they settled down here it required a tremendous amount of effort and sweat,” he says when asked about his thoughts on 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans.
On collaborating with American musicians, he says, “If the opportunity knocks on the door, I would be interested in joining with those celebrities, but in order for that to happen I believe I would need to be globally accepted.”
There is no swagger to his speech or affected banter, and his replies are thoughtful and respectful. He calmly waits during each translation while flashbulbs reverberate off the multiple mirrors in the room. The icon sitting in front of us seems more like a polite school kid than a sex-charged performer known for a six-pack that ripples while he dances.
(Later, his friend Jeanie Han will explain, “He has a sense of innocence that hasn’t been eroded by his success. Like when we’re eating together and I leave food on the plate, he would say, ‘Noonah, you have to finish that. You’re not supposed to leave food on the table.’ And if I say I can’t eat it, he’ll eat it.”)
After 15 minutes, just one more question is allowed. “How do you feel about flying in a jet with your picture on it?” asks a reporter.
Rain answers with a distant smile. “It doesn’t seem like it’s myself. It’s taking a while for me to get adjusted to that.”
* * *
It has, in fact, taken Jeong Ji-Hoon a while to get adjusted to nearly every perquisite that comes with being the man who Time magazine calls “the next face of pop globalism.” A title that expects a lot, it is also in deep contrast to a life story that has played out like a Korean drama.
Born in Seoul, the boy who would become known as Bi, or “Rain” in English, grew up in the areas of Shinchon and Mapo. A self-described introvert, he could go an entire day at Changseo Elementary School without uttering a word. An early photograph reveals a solemn kid with gentle eyes and protruding ears.
As a sixth-grader, Rain entered a talent show on a whim. Imitating the moves he saw on television and in the streets, the taciturn student won the crowd and discovered a form of communication that suited him: dance.
Choosing to attend the Anyang High School of Arts so that he could develop his dance technique, Rain also became involved in the theater program and performed in various plays.
He and his younger sister Hana enjoyed a privileged life until 1997, when the dramatic plunge of Korean won on the international market caused a national crisis and his father’s businesses, a cake shop and a millhouse, were ruined. The family lost everything. After failing to get another business off the ground, Rain’s father headed to Brazil to pursue other business opportunities with the hope of sending money home. His wife, already ailing from diabetes, stayed behind to support the family.
“As a kid I did not realize what she was going through,” says Rain of his mother. “She was in excruciating pain, but still left home early in the morning to work.”
Bitter at his father for leaving and saddened by his mother’s illness, Rain distracted himself by joining an underground dance team that performed at clubs. During his junior year he lived with some of the members, subsisting mostly on cups of ramen. Auditioning for music groups, he dreamed of being able to buy a grand meal and provide for his mother and sister. Instead, he was turned away time and again and told that his appearance wasn’t up to par with his talent and to return only if he had undergone eyelid surgery.
His life would change dramatically in 2000. It was the year he met Park Jin Young, the famous performer and producer known as the Michael Jackson of Korea with a knack for guiding the careers of young singers. The story goes that Rain auditioned for Park and continuously danced for four hours. Park offered to train him under the stipulation that he would attend college. After studying ferociously, Rain was accepted into Kyunghee University and became a music major.
Around the same time, his mother’s condition worsened, and she eventually slipped into a coma from which she never awoke. Devastated and guilt-ridden by her death, Rain vowed to claim success in her name. Over the next two years, he poured himself into his album under the critical eye of Park.
“Bad Guy” was finally released in May 2002. Then came two more albums and gigs on a few Korean television series, most notably “Full House,” the soap opera that earned him fans across Asia. The demand for Rain increased exponentially and his third album, “It’s Raining,” topped the charts in Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea. Revered for his slick footwork and theatrical shows, he sold out concerts and managed to reach a demographic that ranged from kindergarteners to senior citizens.
“He just has this charisma and enthusiasm, kind of a natural energy that exudes when he dances and it’s just so exciting to watch,” says Jamie King, artistic director of Rain’s World Tour, who has worked with Prince and Madonna. “He likes to be challenged. A lot of people are busy and don’t necessarily want to perfect or work on their craft as much as they should. I think that’s what sets him apart and makes him really special.”
It’s the hardships in Rain’s past that have made him more than a pop star. In 2004, when he won Artist of the Year at the KBS Music Awards, the young man who had officially become a star, broke down and tearfully thanked those who helped him fulfill the promise he made to his mother. Admirers empathizing with his story have left encouraging notes on his Web site. “I think u are doing hard work!! BE STRONG!!! U have the power of all your fans,” reads a recent post from Marcela of Chile.
Even those doing business with Rain say his history makes a difference.
“The mere fact that he’s earned his money and so have I, that was a clicking point,” says Andy Kim, founder of VOI, the voiceover IP company producing Rain’s Los Angeles concert. Kim, also 24, suffered the effects of the same International Monetary Fund crisis that devastated Rain’s parents, with his family losing their Beverly Hills house and forced to live out of their car for a while.
“We both weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouth. I think, just like me, he will always remember his roots.”
As for Rain’s plans to convert international success into American success, Kim says he believes it’s possible. “In Asia when one person thinks that this is cool, everyone thinks it’s cool. In America, it’s not like that. There have been a lot of people who have tried to come to America and have just crawled right back to Asia. It doesn’t matter how good you are, it doesn’t matter how sexy you are, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. If the people don’t acknowledge you it all doesn’t mean anything.
“The one thing about Rain is he has a personality that’s acknowledgeable.”
* * *
An hour after the press conference, I’m waiting for the promised 15 minutes with Rain that I hope to push to 30. Four bodyguards stand in front of the double doors of the conference room from which Rain emerges every so often to take a break after each one-on-one interview. I ask one of the guards what it was like to escort Rain through the Atlanta airport.
“About 20 to 30 people followed us once they noticed him, then others followed with cell phones,” he says. “One girl stopped and stared and couldn’t move.”
The beefy guard says it’s a bit different when an American music star lands.
“We wouldn’t even take Usher through the main airport,” he declares.
Meanwhile the PR cavalry standing to the side has worked itself into a tizzy after learning that CNN wants a few minutes with Rain. Except that word from Rain is he wants no part of it, as he’s worried about making a mistake on a national television show.
When I finally make my way into the interview room, it’s 8:30 p.m., and Rain is running late for his appointment with Grammy-winning producer Dallas Austin. Having crafted songs for the likes of Madonna and Janet Jackson, Austin could be a key player in Rain’s English album that is said to be in the pipeline. I’m warned to stick to the 15 minutes.
Taller and slimmer up close with thick eyebrows and flawless skin, Rain steps into the room with two of his managers. Upon learning how far I have traveled and waited, he says, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” in English. The rest, however, will be in Korean with a translator.
I ask him about the racial and cultural barriers here that may keep him from breaking into the Billboard chart. He nods.
“I do acknowledge that there’s such a thing, but what keeps me from thinking that way is the music itself. Even if there is racial discrimination, music can get through to you because it is a universal language.”
And is the thought of American success more thrilling than what he’s already tasted?
“It’s really, really exciting,” he says, grinning. “I have to try it to see what it will be like. As of now I’m studying English so I’m really focusing on overcoming that language barrier.”
Rain says he has no fear of failing, since the experience will be good for him and he’ll learn from it. This is the singer who still prays to his mother before every performance, asking not for success but for guidance to do the best that he can.
When I ask how his mother’s death has affected him as a performer, he sits upright and pauses. “There are times when I feel that things are very difficult and rough and moments when I want to quit,” he says, “but when I compare this emotional stress to what my mother went through, this is really nothing.”
He refers to his mother’s death, as well as the struggle he experienced in the industry, as the memories that keep him humble.
Right now, Rain is optimistic about his future and opportunities that may arise. He’s made amends with his father who helps him with the tour; ABC has asked to make a television documentary on him; he just snagged a role in the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer” film; and rumor has it that American music producers are interested, and he may soon amicably part with Park Jin Young to forge out on his own.
* * *
On my way out of Atlanta the next day, I spot Rain standing alone near the Delta ticket counter. No entourage in sight, he is just one in a sea of business travelers and families at the airport at 9 a.m. on a Friday. Wearing cropped khakis, an army fatigue button-down and black flip-flops, he’s listening to an iPod, his head bowed low, covered with a brown beanie.
I re-introduce myself as one of the many reporters who must blend into an unrecognizable mass for him.
He pulls the headphones from his ears and smiles.
“I know who you are,” he responds fluidly in English.
We make small talk. He says Dallas turned out to be very nice, that, no, he didn’t go to the gym this morning and, no, he’s not too tired from the trip. He has one more leg to go — a press conference in New York — until he returns to Korea.
I joke that he should have made it easier on me in the interview by utilizing what today seems to be perfectly functioning English.
His manager appears to whisk him away, but before he leaves, Rain extends his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
I repeat the phrase back in both Korean and English then bow and wave, unsure as to which culture and language is more appropriate.
“Bye Rain … uh, Bi.”
A few minutes later, I see him crammed in the lineup for baggage security, holding onto a brown Louis Vuitton suit bag with his crew around him.
Putting the bag on the moving conveyor belt, he pulls off his hat and fluffs up his hair. Off comes the button-down, the belt, the flip-flops, the shades — until he is standing barefoot in just a T-shirt and shorts. There is no stylizing, no incognito mysteriousness. He seems naked, vulnerable. Standing next to a friend, he rises to his tiptoes, and the two laugh and playfully punch at each other.
It occurs to me that this is a rare glimpse of Jeong Ji-Hoon, and that if all goes according to plan, I may be witness to one of the last times he can traipse through an airport or chat in the middle of a terminal. Because when he returns it’s game time and he’ll be embarking on a seemingly implausible mission that will either make him want to hightail it out of town or reap the awards of a long-awaited dream.
Whether or not America is ready, Rain is about to fall.
On his Asian fans:
“Asia is my hometown, so all the Asian fans always want me to do well, they want me to be successful. I don’t want to disappoint my fans, so while I’m not sure I can be successful in America, I will try the best that I can.”
On his favorite performer:
“Michael Jackson. Even though there are a lot of rumors and scandal surrounding him, I still think he’s the best artist.”
On comparisons to Usher and Justin Timberlake:
“I am a newcomer in the U.S. so even being compared to them is really an honor.”
On the perception that K-pop is superficial:
“I think K-pop is more visual and the visuals overpower the talent, which is why maybe some people think K-pop artists aren’t talented.”
On the most important lesson he’s learned:
“Everything may not work the way you planned it, so I learned to always think about the best and worst scenario.”
On what else he wants out of life:
“A little later, after 30 and before I become 40, I want to be with somebody I love.”
On the kind of girl he’s looking for:
“She has to be a good person, cook really well and be aegyo (sweet and girly).”
On life outside of performing:
“I don’t have a personal life. Whenever I have free time I just work on my career. That’s how I play.”
On his sex appeal:
“To this day I’m not comfortable with questions like ‘Are you trying to look sexy?’ But, of course, if you think of me as a sexy person that would be a good thing.”
On being told to get eyelid surgery:
“As I get older I feel that the beauty of nature is best. I try to not focus on what I don’t have as far as looks are concerned. I think it’s wise to make the most of your assets. In doing so I have come to know people who like me and consider me an attractive person.”